Without Johnson patrolling the paint, the Hurricanes take a substantial hit on the glass. Johnson’s rebounding rate (14.3 per 40 minutes) is among the best in college basketball and almost twice as high as that of Gamble (8.0 per 40 minutes), his backup. The Winston-Salem native hasn’t scored the ball at an efficient clip—he’s shooting 42.6-percent from the floor, down almost 7-percent from last season and 16.5-percent from the season before—but he does lead the team in points per 40 minutes (17.8), gets to the free throw line (7 free throw attempts per game) and shoots the ball well while there (71-percent).
As significant as Johnson’s unilateral production is, the ripple effect his presence has on the rest of the offense presents even greater value. Johnson creates a dynamic one-two punch in the frontcourt with Kenny Kadji, Miami’s standout stretch-4. The defensive attention Johnson attracts inside opens up the perimeter for Kadji, whose defender oftentimes strays toward the paint to double-down on Johnson or assist with help-side rebounding. The upshot: more open looks for arguably the ACC’s most versatile 4-man.
In games Johnson has missed this season, that difficult-to-defend combination is lost and defenses are able to zero in on Kadji as a result. Kadji made just 5 of his 16 field goal attempts in Tuesday’s loss to Indiana State in the third place game, largely because of the defensive attention reallocated from inside to the perimeter in Johnson’s absence. In all, the Cameroon native is shooting just 19-of-45 (42-percent) from the floor and 2-of-9 from behind the arc in the four games played without the team’s starting center.
Miami has a strong backcourt too, spearheaded by senior point guard Durand Scott and upstart sophomore Shane Larkin. But the Diamond Head Classic showed the Hurricanes are at their best with a balanced offensive attack, not when their two starting guards combine for 26 shots per game, as Scott and Larkin did against the Sycamores.
The Canes, to their own detriment, have never run their offense through Reggie Johnson, even when he’s healthy. The program’s influx of talented gunners over the years (e.g., Scott, Larkin, Malcolm Grant, Garrius Adams) has centralized the offense upon the perimeter. If Johnson cannot stay healthy—and he hasn’t in either of the last two seasons, including this one—Miami’s backcourt will bear the burden once again in a guard-stacked conference. And that isn’t auspicious news for a program tabbed as an under-the-radar ACC contender before the season started.
More than any other team in the league relies upon one player, Miami needs a healthy and productive Johnson the rest of the way to even approach the preseason expectations of the team that now seem far-fetched. Any tenuous hope the Canes have of living up to the lofty hype hinges on the sturdy shoulders and fragile finger of the ACC’s most valuable player.